The Real Ragnar
A historical legend or merely fiction?
The sagas start in legend and end in history with diversions into tales of adventure and chivalry throughout. But the saga of Ragnar Loðbrók neatly straddles the transition from legend to history: it begins by anchoring the future wife of Ragnar in the greatest of Norse legend, the story of Sigurd the Dragon Slayer and Brynhild (ignoring the difficulty of Sigurd and Brynhild belonging to a time four centuries earlier), and ends with the sons of Ragnar, men such as Ivar the Boneless and Sigurd Snake-in-the-eye, who are undoubtedly historical figures.
Whether Ragnar himself was a historical character remains unknown. While a group of Viking war chiefs were known as sons of Loðbrók, this could refer to a tribal founder as their actual paternal father. But if Ragnar was real, he likely first appears in the historical record in 845 CE, when a Viking chieftain named Reginheri led
120 longships up the River Seine to attack Paris. According to the French chroniclers, this Ragnar succumbed to the plague that devastated the Vikings besieging Paris. But ‘Ragnar’ pops up again in the following decades: he raids Scotland and the Isles, settles in Dublin, attacks Anglesey and, finally, dies in a snake-filled pit in York. Actually, Ragnar appears to have died at least five times during his career.
It's possible that a series of different Viking chieftains who shared similar names had their stories conflated into one character: Ragnar Loðbrók. Once this process began, the pull of a good hero with name recognition would ensure that other tales would be ascribed to him, in the same way that Arthur, at most a war leader of the Britons, became the exemplar of medieval chivalry.
With the modern reinterpretation of Vikings, which has seen them change from bloodthirsty rapists to intrepid explorers and traders, it was only a matter of time before Ragnar Loðbrók would be reimagined for the screen. Vikings makes for great television but it conflates different times and characters, making the historical Rollo, the first ruler of Normandy, Ragnar’s brother and contemporary, when in reality Ragnar came two generations before Rollo. But such tale making is in keeping with the writers of the sagas.